KISS and Tell

Paul Stanley, king of the nighttime world, just woke up. And you can tell. His voice has little of the distinctive arena-rock urgency that one somehow can't help but expect after hearing all his rousing stage patter between tunes on Alive!, KISS's epochal 1975 live double-LP. "I wanna know how many people here like the taste of alcohol?" he asked right before "Cold Gin" on side four.

Who knows what, or if, the 43-year-old KISS guitarist-singer was drinking last night, but this morning, at a little after 8:00 L.A. time, he doesn't exactly seem to be at the top of his game. "My alarm, like, just went off a few minutes ago," he confesses in a voice still thick with sleep. He sniffs a lot. He sounds, amazingly, a tiny bit like Woody Allen. "But I said to myself there's no way I'm going to miss this interview. I take this stuff pretty seriously."

So Paul Stanley (born Stanley Paul Eisen) clears his throat and gets down to business. Say what you will about KISS -- the monsters of Seventies pop-culture infamy or the fortyish metal vets of today -- but never for one moment question the band's work ethic. Underneath the S&M costumes and kabuki makeup, theirs was a story of classic American stick-to-itiveness and a fearsome determination to get to the top. And stay there, long after it seemed likely or conceivable. "Will do anything to make it," drummer Peter Criss wrote in that famous Rolling Stone classified ad he ran in 1972 before joining the band. Criss is gone now, of course, but little else has changed.

Today Paul Stanley is flogging the band's latest venture, the First Worldwide KISS Convention. Instead of working the usual summer tour circuit, the band is taking to the road with a massive traveling museum of KISSabilia, making stops in hotels and convention centers in 23 cities (the KISS caravan pulls into Miami's Radisson Mart Plaza Hotel today, July 6). Along with the usual tables of Trekker-esque paraphernalia vendors and traders in collectibles, the convention will trot out twenty complete stage costumes the band has unearthed from its warehouses -- plus an assortment of instruments, doodads, and sundry KISS ephemera (Criss's original drum stool! Gene Simmons's actual flame-spitting sword!) certain to satisfy the faithful who pony up $100 each to get in.

Most important: Each stop on the convention trail has KISS itself; the band (Stanley, bassist Simmons, drummer Eric Singer, and guitarist Bruce Kulick) will field questions, sign autographs, play a two-hour set of audience requests acoustically, and generally mingle with the troops. Stanley and company promise a most unconventional sort of convention. "It's this twelve-hour tribal powwow," he explains.

Tribal indeed. There always has been something spookily clannish about KISS and its devotees (collectively known as the KISS Army). In their mid-Seventies heyday, the band commanded legions of greasepaint-caked American youth, kids who made their own Gene Simmons armor out of tinfoil, spat ketchupy fake blood at each other at birthday parties, freaked out their parents, and discovered -- in the forbidden cartoon grandeur of KISS -- the spirit of rock and roll. They also bought Marvel's KISS comic books (printed with band members' own blood!), picked up all four simultaneously released solo albums, watched KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (the group's first and only TV movie), and turned the band from Long Island into a powerful, if schlocky, merchandising force in the late Seventies. It is these fans who somehow have rehabilitated the band they still love, and it is these fans KISS now is counting on to show up this summer to see their childhood heroes again, this time as leather-swaddled mannequins behind Plexiglas.

"We're aware of our past and we celebrate it," notes Stanley, who does not look back with either anger or irony at the band's slightly ridiculous years at the top. "The more we're in touch with our past, the more we know where we're headed.... That's what this convention is all about. It celebrates the history of the band, but in a way it also celebrates the history of the fans. Everyone who comes and sees the costumes or whatever remembers what they were doing when they saw the band for the first time. It's almost like a living photo album. But it's not only our photo album, it's the people who were there."

Many people were there. The sweet smell of Seventies nostalgia has caught up to KISS with a vengeance. Last year an oddball lineup of artists gathered to cover KISS songs on the KISS My Ass tribute album -- everyone from Lenny Kravitz to Anthrax to, most nuttily, Nashville's number-one KISS fan, Garth Brooks. (An earlier tribute album, featuring mostly Northwestern punk and grunge bands, was put together by Seattle's C/Z Records in the early Nineties. It was called, aptly, Hard to Believe.) Stone Temple Pilots and White Zombie have been known to take the stage in full mock KISS makeup. Way back in 1984 Paul Westerberg offered reverent (and prescient) homage with a dead-on "Black Diamond" on the Replacements' Let It Be album. It wasn't considered very cool then, of course, but maybe that was the point.

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